(I agree with both points, and admire those who attempt to regain control of their attention.)
This comment is about the tone of the post in The Paris Review. There's a kind of elegiac primitivism circulating among the cultural elite that rubs me wrong, both in Birkerts and the contemporary reviewer.
The constant evocation of "loss" associated with some intangible trauma seems like a cheap trick to hack our empathy. By cheap trick, I mean, "a trick that a lot of people use, which like Hollywood's emotional manipulations, is getting old."
One hallmark of this genre is that an essay that seems like it's about one thing ("reading in an age of distraction"), is really about the author's "I", a foray into autobiography. Another hallmark is that it says nothing new. It is completely safe, a piece of writing well within the received wisdom. Readers of The Paris Review would be hard pressed to object to any substantial point the writer made, except, maybe, that those points did not need making to that audience.
I hope that we get more people working on tools and methods that save us from the Internet, and fewer posts asking for our attention while they lament it.
> is really about the author's "I", a foray into autobiography
I do feel there's some irony here on this "anti-narrative" perspective being at the top, as it always is on HN. (No disrespect intended, as I empathize with what you're saying, blueyes.)
To explain: I feel with "distraction",we're all talking around patience, information and narrative. Novels and long-form storytelling are information (wisdom) buried in complex narrative. And these stories, in a way, are a microcosm of the world we live in. They are perhaps practice for grappling with and distilling meaning from the complex world. To revel in a fuzzy and meandering story is to revel in a sandboxed version of the same process by which the world delivers us most lessons.
And I would argue there is huge value in sharing information in narratives, because that data/knowledge is "warmed" by empathy and grounded in imagery of physical space and experience and other things that lodge in our minds (moreso in some than others, true) in some very human ways.
But we all here (and I include myself) cannot seem to focus on even this article's grounding personal narrative, because we want the succinct information, the quick fix, the distilled solution... like addicts who've abdicated responsibility for parsing that same wisdom and personal revelation from the complex and ambiguous narrative itself.
I'm personally trying lately NOT to believe any set of universal fixes can possibly be prescribed, and that there are instead a million appropriate fixes that will take shape in the minds of each reader. That feels like a step toward the complexity that is more like the real world I live in.
I found myself reading the whole comment, adding "to me" to each line. And I can't disagree with it in that reading.
> I hope that we get more people working on tools and methods that save us from the Internet, and fewer posts asking for our attention while they lament it.
The general (ish) perspective of the larger comment (and proposed cure) feels very symptomatic of the disease to me <3
For the record, I'm not anti-narrative. I love narratives. I think great narratives are made of engaging sequences of actions, characters faced with decisions where the stakes matter, great writing, and a persistent thread of surprise that emerges from the weirdness of life. They are enlightening and moving. (If you like great narratives, too, I highly recommend "Naples '44".)
I did not find any of those traits in this sometimes autobiographical book review, which suffered from a weird passivity, and attempted to create emotional effects in predictable ways.
It was more like a series of ahistorical snapshots, a medley of impressions and allusions, which is typical of much creative non-fiction being produced in universities and workshops today.
Was there a protagonist who struggled? How much agency did they have? If so, what was the outcome? Did they surprise us? I didn't have clear answers to those questions after reading the piece. It left me neither moved nor enlightened, so from my perspective, it failed.
You mention one of the reasons why I like narratives. They capture the paths through complexity that hint at what can be done, without prescribing rules for everyone. Narratives and case studies are one of the only ways of conveying those lessons, without over-reaching as a formula might.
But, for that to be valuable, we need to follow someone down the corridor of their experience and have some idea of the context they could observe, which led to the decisions they made.
Narratives do not have to be fuzzy and meandering. In my experience, the best ones are not. I think the work of the writer is to distill from life a sequence of words that intensify and condense the writer's experience when it is reproduced in the reader.
Yes, you can add "for me" to the end of any sentence, and that does make the author's sentence indisputable. But I believe that when we write, we are writing to try to convey something beyond ourselves, a truth that may be shared by others. The more an author retreats into "for me", the less they are doing the work of keeping their readers in mind.
The central question answered by a published piece of writing should be: why would anyone care? I care about "reading in an age of distraction"; I might care a little about Sven Birkert's opinions about that; but if you asked me before breakfast whether I care about a stranger's medley of impressions about reading in an Internet age, the answer is probably not. So part of my objection here is to the bait-and-switch of clothing a memoir in the form of a book review with a title that seems universal, when the substance of the piece is utterly subjective.
Funny! It's the exact opposite that rubs me wrong, and I see it all the time from both fellow nerds, pundits, and so on...
It's like many people believe all of history is either a blob with no ups and downs - it just is what it is forever -, or a straight arrow to even better things.
It's like loss, nostalgia, or even the hint that some things could have been better is if not forbidden strongly discouraged... - lest one be considered insufficiently modern, which appears to be one of the big crimes today...
I just cannot find the right time or the proper situation for reading, and there are much simpler distractions such as Netflix, social networks or the videogames...
I think there are 2 things at play; the first is a gradual wearing of our attention span in a world where we can scroll through the whole worlds news and everyone's opinion on it, in the time it takes to defecate. A continuous flow of intellectual snacks - some healthy, some junk - is habit forming. Without judgement whether it's a good or a bad thing, it's certainly a thing.
The second (which I think is exacerbated by the first) is plain old cognitive friction : it requires more brain energy to invest in book. A full page of small font text, vocabulary stretching language, vivid images created by words, high concept theories, different plot elements to assemble; all of these represent a much high load on the cranial CPU - and that's not to say we can't do it, but that we are subconsciously reluctant to make the effort.
In the same way that if your loaded gym bag is waiting at the end of the bed, you're much more likely to get to the gym than if you have to hunt through the laundry, search for your membership card, find your car keys etc etc.
I think this is covered by Dan Kahneman in Thinking Fast & Slow, but i could be mistaken.
Anyway, it's a thing.
No distractions, comfortable position (obviously you would need some pillows), and it helps wind down your brain. In the weekend you can also pick up the book again in the morning if you wish. The benefit: you sleep there every day, so you can read a bit every day.
I don't use a smartphone, so no computer in bed means no incoming messages or time-sinks available at the touch of a button; I would recommend leaving the smartphone in another room or having a set routine of placing it in some kind of zero disturbance (or call only) night setting. Whatever works to stop you from grabbing it for some more mindless scrolling in bed. The time you use for reading must come from somewhere, so cut down on the low-value entertainment (this may be hard, I don't know).
Going to bed is something to look forward to when your book is there waiting for you once it is part of your routine. A good book beats starting another episode on Netflix once you've found the genres or writers that work for you.
I bought an alarm clock. Basic $10 Casio thing, but anything else is also fine as long as it's "dumb". After a certain time in the evening, and in the morning before I eat breakfast, nothing with an internet connection is allowed in my bedroom. That's my reading time.
It's actually more difficult for me as my bedroom is also my office, so I need to unplug my laptop and put it in the living room overnight, but someone living in a bigger house/apartment than me would not have that particular issue.
I tried starting "Emperor's New Mind" by Penrose a month or so back. I don't think I made it past chapter one. Currently I'm binging Stephenson's "Anathem" (I fucking love this book), and feel a little bit of excitement at digging into the sources, but I'm afraid it will end up like most bibliographies I scour - well-intentioned lists I hardly ever make any progress on.
Despite my avoidance of FB, IG, etc, I still find myself spending an inordinate amount of time on Reddit or even HN. But the occasional hit of something truly useful (the Cesium for UE4 post was intriguing to me, as a project at work a few years back was attempting something similar on a smaller scale), but the constant low-level dopamine from neophilia keeps me constantly scrolling, but ultimately listless and depressed at the end of the day.
Oftimes I wonder if it wouldn't be better to make my own pinprick math, but I'm just too addicted to the Reticulum.
Really nice for math and CS books if you also have LaTeX as you can get it to render well with a bit of practice. Now I just need to get back into my Anki habit, I was good for a couple years and then just stopped late last year which is frustrating, it was useful but my momentum was lost and I haven't recovered it yet.
Maybe reach for something easy, too--a book or series you enjoyed in your youth, long enough ago that you won't remember every detail. Save Tolstoy for later :)
Non-fiction is completely different, as most of my friends read pop-science or political books regularly.
I go through a book a month and it's been amazing. Some of the narrators are fantastic and really make the book better.
Prior to the last couple years I’d read for pleasure, sure. I’d also read things I had to (work, school, etc). Lately I’ve been reading like I’m optimizing for throughput—to read everything I can, to cover as much ground as possible.
I also read to my daughter (still in the womb hahah). I read her children’s books (many of them stem based). I also read books on algorithms, computing, & mathematics to her.
I prioritize reading. I wake up hours before work (not as bad as it sounds given the late start engineering culture) and read. Much of what I’m reading now are texts that one must “work through” so I read and work through books. This is all rather new to me too. I’ve never read this much this quickly.
This habit started humbly, but now the train has left the station...
“They want plot and character, sure, but what they really want is a vehicle that will bear them off to the reading state.” This state is threatened by the ever-sprawling internet—can the book’s promise of deeper presence entice us away from the instant gratification of likes and shares?”
I’m all for the promise of the Internet of giving a voice to the voiceless. But the time and quality of thought required to put words into print was a higher bar, and ostensibly higher quality on average, than the time and quality of thought I put into writing a quick blog post or vapid tweet.
Terence Tao's hierarchy helped me here - book > paper > blog post > buzz note > tweet. He once wrote somewhere that he chose his medium depending on how developed the thought he wished to express was (or something to that effect).
(Remember "Gooogle Buzz"?)
Very much so. It took me a long time to figure out why I could never get into podcasts, and even interviews or talks by authors I respect are boring to me. Writing books takes a lot of work, and they are almost always better organized and more coherent than other forms of information (such as forum comments . . . ). You get more "intellectual nourishment" from books, especially good books.
I used to read a lot when I was younger. A lot of it was junk. I enjoyed it, I would not mind if my kids read it, but really, it did not had more quality in it then random blog.
A surprise for me was that once the biggest offenders were turned off, my brain craved the low-reward distraction fix - I would find myself compulsively refreshing Twitter or a forum in the hope of getting that same brief, low-value, "here is something you need to look at" reward. But it didn't come, and while I lost close to a month of leisure time on compulsive-refreshing I found that "there is no reward here" eventually filtered through to my subconscious.
The other shock was how little people at work noticed the difference between "I have a notification, let me respond to that" and "I'm at a nice break, let me check my messages". I thought median response time going from a few seconds to a few minutes would be problematic but nobody even notices. (Perhaps they're also too distracted?) Of course there is the worst case that I get head down in something and then I'm 2-3 hours out before I can get back, but it helps we have a team where we can be quite open with the idea of, "I quit Slack if I need focus time, here are emergency ways to contact me if necessary"
I am not yet back to reading books. I hope that will come in time. But I definitely find myself better at engaging with long-form entertainment, without stopping and getting distracted within the first few minutes.
My experience is that these habits work until "the pillars" of my life (people, place, and routine) shift. I had low screen-time before COVID: but not after. Buying a new house had similar affect. A new friend or social media app (looking at you Clubhouse) interrupts my flow and I fall back into the scroll-hole once again.
Every few months I need to re-learn how to fight against the PC in my pocket. I always find a way. But never get the sense that I've "leveled-up".
For books, audio books are good compromise. Not as deeply engaged, but at least you can finish books while you're cooking/running/driving.
> as a non-native English speaker
There are books in your own language right? I do everything in English (as non-native English speaker as well) now, so read English at the same speed as my native language (Dutch), but I do read books in Dutch (and other languages) as well.
My usual range is between 100 and 1000 wpm. The majority of modern writing is in the 700+wpm range. The majority of pre-wwii writing is in the 400-600wpm range. Technical books, like say a math book, are in the 100-300wpm range and I need to listen to them multiple times and it doesn't escape my notice that the parts which slow me down the most are the math heavy ones.
It's not that we get more easily distracted when reading today it's that our books contain less information in some fundamental way and are more boring than older books. I blame the fact that the majority of them are written with a keyboard. A medium that lets you write faster than you can think with obvious results. I don't know what modern book would have it's first few drafts be hand written but I would bet any such book would be vastly more interesting to read by the simple fact that the person who wrote it had at least five times as long to think about what they were writing than someone who used a keyboard or type writer.
For interest the article was understandable at 800wpm and this post at 600wpm.
"[275d ...] Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing. [...]"
"[276a ...] the living and breathing word of him who knows, of which the written word may justly be called the image"
This self-reflected, self-conscious "inferiority" to the very living, breathing, vanishing "speech" - the written letter being at best a very poor at its worst a misrepesentative image - gives "birth", I would argue, to (modern western) literature, as we know it.
Philip K. Dick is a literal example of a relentless chase in writing a Exegesis ("a religious/contemplative practice of pointing beyond the text") until his writing drive is completely void of any "letters" to be written. A hell of a ride.
In a way looking back at "books" kind of is just the echo within the echo of the speech dying away in the moment being "spoken".
So trying to find something in books which is "missing" in our "Age of Constant Distraction" is the very same gesture, albeit - in my reading - literary trapped in a ancient rhetoric figure: “Today's youth is rotten to
the core, it is evil, godless, and lazy. It will never be what youth used to be, and it will never be able to preserve our
Every day after going to bed and before sleeping, I read between 0.5 and 4 hours, at the moment, I’m re-reading the Malazan series which consists of 10 books with 800-1200 pages, physical versions would be far more exhausting to read.
One thing I used to do, was reading late into the night. The last time I read the series I was still a student, and I remember days when my alarm went off while I was still reading…
I can assure you that historians prioritise monographs over journal articles in the UK and US, and it's there that you'll generally find their best work.
* The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/9859899-the-pleasures-of...)
* Breaking Bread with the Dead (https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/608945/breaking-bre...)
I would also recommend some of Matthew Crawford's work on the so-called "attention economy."
My complaints with books these days are more to do with finding things I like amongst an endless supply of titles and authors that seem to be marketing, rather than quality, generated. I do have trouble finding new things to read that I enjoy, but I don't believe that modern writing is lacking due to some sort of online degradation. The barrier to publishing is just lower so there is more crap to sift through to find the gems, but authors who otherwise wouldn't have a chance at least have the potential to gain a readership.
I forget exactly how we got to the topic, but someone in the class asked him what music he liked to listen to on his way to school. he looked taken aback, almost shocked by the question. he said something like, "oh I could never listen to music in the car; I wouldn't be able to pay attention to the road! I can only listen to music sitting in a chair by myself at home." he was a young guy btw, playing cds/cassettes/radio in a car had been normal for his entire life. I thought that was kind of absurd at the time, but I think about it every once in a while. what was so different about his experience of music that he literally couldn't do anything else while listening? does my listening to music while I work, while I drive, or while I walk around the city make it impossible for me to experience it the way he does?
Reading in the Age of Constant Distraction - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19147316 - Feb 2019 (170 comments)
As humans we need to consume information to progress. Is it bad that we are "listening" rather than "reading"? We are still learning...
I can't spend much more than 10 minutes reading but I can run an hour and listen to an audiobook.
I've given a few chances to audiobooks, from short to longer ones, I don't feel it replaces the experience of reading at all, it's a different experience, like listening to a radio show but as it never happens to listen to an audiobook while doing nothing else it just feels another way to cram more "productive" activities on the same time slot. As I'm getting older I'm getting really tired of this hyper-efficiency with my time, it's became a worry and definitely is fueling an anxiety syndrome I didn't have before (of course, the pandemic has just made it much worse).
What I'm trying to achieve in life now is give myself more pace, to enjoy something I'm doing because I want and not trying to min-max my free time. So reading books now have their time slot during the week where I stop 1-2 hours just to read. The same for music listening or making music, I have no idea yet if it will help me but it's definitely much less stressful.
Sorry for the rant, totally personal anecdote but I think it ties to the reading vs listening differences.
One unexpected consequences of COVID has actually been that the number of books I read has decreased drastically due to less time spend commuting.
Nonfiction is where I often miss a number or something (like a statistic) and I have to back up and re-listen to it, and also if the point is good, I want to make a note of it to refer back to later, and I can do that more easily with a Kindle book (by making a highlight), than by digging out a physical pen and transcribing.
If I miss something in a fictional audiobook I can usually infer from the context of the next few sentences, or it's just fiction anyway, no big deal if I miss a few little things in the massive story, chances are good I'm going to forget everything but the broad beats in a month or two anyway.
I view cell phones as just too addictive for young children. This has given them the opportunity to cultivate all sorts of interests like books, legos, playing outside, etc. I’m not saying that cultivating these interests is impossible in the world of tech, but it’s even harder for children to resist tech than it is for adults.
Really love how this article is written, the choice of words and sentences really speak to me.
One thing I have found to help is merging audio/textual reading. I enable tts in Kindle app or Edge reader mode and try to read along as I listen, this enables to me to have 30-60 min sessions without getting distracted. It is slower than my absolute reading speed, but I get more in a single sitting.
Coordinating a mapping from reality to our internal world of ideas is hard enough without basic disagreements on the meanings of words. I find it hard to take joy, as some descriptivists do, in words that also mean their opposite!
I like the idea of writing a word and its page number inside the back cover of a book for looking up later but I never seem to have a pen to hand either.
Sometimes. Sometimes something more intricate happens.
是 is, in modern Chinese, the verb "to be". Like other Mandarin verbs, it works in pretty much the way an English speaker would expect, coming after the subject of the sentence and before the object: "I am an American": 我 [I] 是 [am] 美国人 [an American].
That's also how verbs work in Old Chinese. It isn't how predication works, though; where modern Mandarin has (thing)是(other thing), Old Chinese says (thing)(other thing)也. "Lao Tzu was a man of Ch'u": 老子 [Lao Tzu] 楚国人 [a man of Ch'u] 也 ["was"]. 是 is an important word in Old Chinese, but it's not even a verb - it's the proximal demonstrative pronoun, "this".
How does that turn into the verb "to be"? Well, "this" is often used to refer back to a complicated noun phrase. So you see a reanalysis:
鱼 [fish] 出遊 [come out on a pleasure trip] 从容 [(and) relax]。是 [this] 鱼乐 [fish happiness] 也 ["is"]。
鱼 [fish] 出遊 [com(ing) out on a pleasure trip] 从容 [(and) relax(ing)] 是 [is] 鱼乐 [fish happiness]。
The meaning of the utterance didn't change at all (though we forgot that it was supposed to end with 也). But the meaning of 是 inside it changed quite a bit.
- You have a word, and it has a meaning. The nature of this kind of thing is that this word will be used more often in some contexts than in other contexts.
- Someone who knows the meaning perfectly well extends it a bit in a straightforward way. For example, "illuminate" primarily means to shine light on something, making that thing easier to see. But it can be used in an extended sense to refer to making a "murky" concept easier to understand. Anyone who knows the primary meaning will understand why the secondary meaning makes sense.
- So now we have one context where the word is likely to mean one thing, and another context where the same word is likely to mean something a little bit different.
- But the world changes. The old context may become less common. As that happens, what was a metaphorically extended meaning may turn into the ordinary primary meaning.
- All of this happened without anyone learning the wrong meaning of the word. It was always being used correctly. But the meaning shifted anyway.
How does anyone actually read these articles?
And do the ads even work? If I can't disappear the ads, I close the page.
But somebody must be reading the articles(?)
And somebody must be clicking through the ads and buying stuff(?)
I can't believe how bad the experience is.
Tell me it's just me, and everyone else thinks its normal(?)